As Taiwan’s economy began to grow in the early 1960s, the National Forestry Department was in desperate need of laborers. Subsistence indigenous farmers accepted the work of cutting forests and planting new ones in Taiwan’s high mountainous regions. The forestland was vast and remote, and these newly minted woodcutters lived for long periods in makeshift camps far from their villages, working in extremely difficult conditions. To pass the time, ease their homesickness and forget the poverty that led them into this backbreaking work, they gathered around the campfire at night to drink and play the guitar. Taking turns, each worker would improvise a line about the family, spouse or lover left behind in the village, creating over time a song in Paiwan1 that is still known today as The Ballad of the Forest Workers.
The first Portugese explorers to arrive in Taiwan called the island Formosa, or “beautiful isle”. Its exceptionally fertile land, covering 360,000 km2 was already inhabited by indigenous tribes who had arrived some 6,000 years earlier. Under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, Taiwan’s aborigine population was forced to adopt the language and culture of their colonizers. In 1945, when Taiwan fell under Chinese control at the end of World War II, the indigenous peoples were ordered to adopt Chinese customs and the Chinese language, which was spoken by the majority of Taiwan’s inhabitants owing to successive waves of immigration from the 17th to 20th centuries. Thanks to the Ten Major Construction Projects instituted from 1974-1979, Taiwan joined the ranks of the Asian Tigers, East Asian countries who undertook policies to rapidly industrialize, leading to high economic growth, from the 1960s to 1990s2.
Taiwan’s rapid economic growth profoundly changed the island’s natural environment and traditionally agrarian society. Beginning in the late 1960s, many indigenous farmers left their villages to work in factories, industrial agriculture, construction, mining and international maritime transport, but also in the forests as seasonal workers. This is the context in which The Ballad of the Forest Workers was created, a time when Taiwan’s indigenous peoples sought a better life for themselves and their families by accepting seasonal work far from their ancestral villages.
During this time, Taiwan’s Forestry Department was clearcutting huge swaths of remote forestland and required a huge workforce to do so. Many aborigines between the ages of 50 and 70 today remember the recruitment campaign and their own decision to join the ranks of woodcutters sent far from home.
At first, the vast majority of these new loggers were women and young men who had dropped out of school to help their families’ subsistence needs. Staring in the 1980s however, teenagers still completing secondary school began to enroll during their winter and summer term breaks, principally to help their parents pay for their studies. The conditions were physically demanding and required enormous sacrifices. The forests were remote, requiring the workers to travel several days to arrive at the camps, and to live there for uninterrupted periods ranging from a minimum of two to three months and as much as one or two years. The work was hard and dangerous but their salaries, as little as they were, were advanced directly to the families by the Forestry Department. The seasonal workers had no choice but to stay until the end of their contracts to pay off the debt. Young workers with spouses, fiancées or lovers at home found this forced and lengthy separation to be particularly trying. These challenges help explain the beauty and emotion of The Ballad of the Forest Workers.
The Ballad of the Forest Workers was improvised in the evenings around the campfire near where the workers slept, for relaxation and amusement at the end of the day. The workers sang by turns, accompanied by a guitarist. There was no pre-determined melody or subject matter; the singers were free to compose their contributions however they wished. The song speaks of their suffering due to the hard work and the difficult separation from their families and offers the singers a kind of solace, by bringing their loved ones to life. Little by little, the song spread.
Verse 1 (lyrics in Chinese)
Two years, three years have passed and all is well.
Dear big brother, dear little sister, don’t be sad,
I will wait for you until you return.
The lyrics introduce the family members who have left home to work in the forests. The underlying themes are the lengthy separation from their families, the faithfulness of lovers, which cannot always be counted on, and the long wait for parents who asked their children to make enormous sacrifices to support the family and ensure its “happiness”.
Verse 2 (lyrics in Paiwan, translated into Chinese):
Nu qai-shou-jen, nu gau gau ven
Nu Ka-tsalisiyan, nu bacigelen
Haiyan na iye yan ho hai yana iya o ho Haiyan
If a stranger arrives in the village, welcome him with open arms.
If it’s a village lad who comes home, do not let him in your house.
The verse alludes to the fact that, at the time, many Paiwan parents preferred to give their daughters in marriage to a Chinese immigrant from the mainland earning a regular salary, rather than to a local man who left the village for poorly paid manual labor 3. As a result, many a lover returned to his village only to find his girlfriend or fiancée already married, a reality which explains many of the tragic lyrics of the ballad.
Verse 3 (lyrics in Chinese):
Didn’t you say you would always love me?
Who could have imagined your promise was a lie?
Who would have believed it? Even the earth and the sky know now,
I never should have trusted you.
Baijialia, Baijialia, is it possible there is no such thing as true love? 4
When singers reach this verse about Baijialia, they sing softly to indicate that they are not sad and that they accept their rejection, but their fatalism is only for appearances. This most famous verse in the song allows the singer to hide his real feelings behind a metaphor; in fact, his love is intact.
Verse 4 (lyrics in Chinese):
Because of you, I suffer from headaches, I am sick, feverish.
I was sent to the hospital, but in reality I am lovesick.
What should I do? What should I do? I want to live even though I suffer. 5
Here, the singer summons the strength to continue to work hard and surmount the pains of a lonely heart, a suffering that is even more difficult to bear than each day’s grueling physical labor.
Verse 4 (second half in Paiwan, translated into Chinese):
Sabisi ni yamanonaka, Sabisi ni izematemo, Dodimoto ,
Ginjangno Galanson yamanonaka
I am so lonely here, I have been on this remote mountain for so long,
My family is in Jialan, on the far side of a distant mountain. 6
My parents, who were born in 1929 and attended primary school in Japanese, told me that, when they were young, The Ballad of the Forest Workers was sung not only in Paiwan and Chinese but also in Japanese. The workers could choose to sing in any language; what mattered was the emotions they expressed.
Verse 5/Refrain (lyrics in Chinese):
I was sent to Valulju, but Yamanonaka is where I was born.
Even if there is no train or taxi to take me back there,
I want to go home, I want to see my family again.
I will take route n°11 and I will follow it to the end,
I want to go home, I want to see my family again. 7
The author of these lyrics works in the deepest mountain reaches of Valulju and expresses his firm desire to return to his family, no matter how difficult or long the road home.
A living treasure for humanity
The indigenous peoples of Taiwan have their own languages, traditions and customs, and they employ these in creative ways to face the difficult social changes that have been forced on them. The Ballad of the Forest Workers is a fine example. This folk song was not composed by a single man or woman but by generations of workers speaking a variety of languages to express and give voice as a group to their courage in the face of adversity. Each of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized ethnic groups has its own musical traditions and songs, but many of these share a common purpose: eliminate negative emotions by soothing sadness and anger, in order to find the strength to live and work. This explains why, in 2019, The Ballad of the Forest Workers is still sung by many indigenous people in both cities and villages. Moreover, The Ballad of the Forest Workers holds a key element of Paiwan culture: a particularly tragic way of expressing deep sentiments of love, with tenderness, sympathy and warmth. By demonstrating that traditional cultures hold universal values that can help people care for themselves, face the challenges of modern society with greater resilience and communicate and share deeply with others, The Ballad of the Forest Workers constitutes a living treasure for all people.